BREATHE – (reprint) May 2017
Second Chances Series Book 3
Sometimes all you need is a second chance…
Anna Morelli’s life looked picture perfect—until her husband had an affair with the nanny. She’s ready to file for divorce when a freak accident claims his life, and she’s forced to act the grieving widow. Trouble is, she’s not much of an actress. She has to get away—somewhere her meddling family won’t think to find her. That place is Two Willows Winery, the new home of her former best friend and ex-lover, Jace, and prays their childhood friendship is strong enough that he won’t turn her away.
Jace never expected to see Anna at his door. He’d been the son of the help; she was the Morelli princess, and their affair was doomed from the start. He’s never forgiven her for breaking his heart—or marrying someone else. But he can’t turn her away. Not when she needs a roof over her children’s heads, and some peace of mind. He knows firsthand how strong her father’s influence can be, and her need to break away.
But their painful history isn’t forgotten, and as old secrets are finally revealed, their love is rekindled. Can Jace let go of his grudge and forgive her? Can she trust him again? Or are their wounds too deep to ever truly heal?
Read Chapter One:
Anna ground the stick down another gear, hit the gas, and wondered why in the world Jace would choose to live in such a place. Tall stands of trees thwarted any hope of seeing past the ditches on the sides of the road. She took a quick, frantic glimpse down at the directions she’d printed out, narrowly missed making a right-angle turn, and sighed heavily. Normally she enjoyed getting away, doing new things. But today her patience was at near zero and dwindling rapidly.
Damn. Matteo was awake. A quick turn of her head and she saw him rubbing his eyes, his nearly-black hair flattened on one side where it had pressed against the seat. She turned her attention back to the road. “Quietly, Matteo,” she whispered. “We’re nearly there. Don’t wake Aurelia, okay?”
“Mama, I’m hungry.”
“I know, sweetie.” Anna caught sight of a road sign that showed a bunch of grapes. Beneath it were the words “Two Willows Winery” and then “2 KM”, and she let out a breath. Thank God, it wasn’t much farther. It had been a long day.
It had been a long few months, when it came right down to it.
She pasted on a bright smile and made her voice light, despite the unease swirling around in her stomach. “Just a few more minutes and we’ll be at Uncle Jace’s, I promise.” She’d be relieved to be at their destination…except that Jace had no idea they were coming. And she wasn’t exactly sure how she was going to explain their sudden arrival, let alone ask for a place to stay. It was the height of presumption, thinking that Jace would welcome them with open arms.
The road snaked around another curve and inclined further. Anna kept both hands on the wheel to negotiate the turns. Uncle Jace, indeed. He hadn’t been around more than a handful of times since Matteo’s birth. He’d suddenly become so busy and important that he didn’t have time for the Morellis anymore. Not that she wasn’t proud of his success…of course she was. But there had been times over the years when she’d missed him terribly. She wondered why he’d kept away, and if it had anything to do with what had happened—and what hadn’t—between them.
At the same time, a curl of dread spiraled through her stomach. She hadn’t even given him any warning. Feeling trapped like a butterfly under glass, she’d needed to get away. Somewhere safe. In her head she knew that Jace’s was the last place she should go. They had too much history. But her heart told her differently. Here she could hide for a little while. Ever since her husband’s funeral she’d wanted to scream with the need to escape. And the only place she wanted to be was with Jace.
Which, of course, made absolutely no sense.
She braked and cranked the wheel around another sharp bend, cursing under her breath so that Matteo wouldn’t hear. She wasn’t familiar with the roads. The first hour of the drive had been quite pretty, Route 97 as pleasant as she remembered. But climbing the narrow road to Jace’s new winery was quite another matter. At home she knew the vineyard like the back of her hand. But she wasn’t home any more. She was here and driving toward a new life. This was only the first step, a chance to regroup. A chance to get her feet beneath her once again.
Her old life was over. Stefano had seen to that, and playing the heartbroken widow for appearances sake had taken its toll. Having to put on a false face of grief had exhausted her beyond anything she’d ever known. Because the truth of the matter was she’d been leaving him anyway. And the guilt and anguish she felt was caused not by his death, but because she thought she should feel more grief and didn’t.
Another small sign announced the entrance to the winery and she turned left, nervousness getting the best of her. She hadn’t seen Jace in nearly a year, not since right after Aurelia was born. She bit down on her lip as Matteo sighed from the backseat. Jace had brought Aurelia a stuffed lamb, fuzzy and white with a pink ribbon. And then he’d left again, without even visiting. She missed how they used to talk about old times, but for a very long time she’d felt he’d been putting a pleasant face on resentment. What she didn’t understand was why. He’d been the one to walk away, so where had all the resentment come from?
It didn’t matter. Right now, being a good mother to Matteo and Aurelia was her first priority. Coming to Jace’s made sense on some level. She would be safe here for a while, hidden away until she could figure out what to do. Her father wasn’t above strong-arming her to do what he wanted, but he would never follow her here. Jace’s name wasn’t even spoken in the Morelli household. Jace and her brother, Alex, had remained friends, but Alex had branched out into the restaurant business on the lower mainland, out from under their father’s thumb.
Anna envied his independence.
Now she was ready to claim her own freedom. Surely Jace could put up with them for a few weeks. For all Jace’s faults, he’d always said that if she needed anything, he’d be there. She’d never planned on taking him up on it. For a time, she would have rather died than ask him for anything. But desperate times…
And it wasn’t just for herself. The children would be away from the whispers and pitying looks of the household staff and their elitist circle of “friends.” No one knew her here. They might have some sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, she could stay under the radar until she decided what it was she wanted to do.
“Mama, are we there yet?”
She couldn’t help but smile softly at the plaintive question. She slowed the car and peered over her shoulder at Matteo, strapped into a car seat and blinking his round eyes at her.
“Yes, we’re here. Just a moment, and I promise you can get out and run around.”
She pulled out of the trees and into a small parking area that held one other vehicle. A shiny, silver Porsche 911 Carrera.
Leave it to Jace to drive a two-seater bullet. She shouldn’t be surprised. He’d always been one for toys, and the flashier the better. It seemed nothing had changed. He had always been hungry for things. Briefly she wondered if all men thought of their value as the sum of their possessions. Certainly Stefano had. She remembered the sailboat he’d bought. In the end, it had been his worst mistake. Anna knew better than most that things were just that. Material possessions. Certainly not enough to build a life on. She’d tried explaining that to Jace once, but he hadn’t wanted to listen then, either. The memory touched a hollow part within her.
The parking area was just below a large house, more like a lodge than a regular dwelling, built of reddish-stained logs.
As she pulled to a stop, Jace stepped out of a line of vines to her right. He halted and stared, his lips flattening with surprise at seeing her behind the wheel. No smile. No wave of greeting. And her stomach tumbled over itself.
She’d known him for so long she’d nearly forgotten how imposing he could be. His tall frame was lean and muscled, not overly large but exuding a confidence and power she’d always admired. But at this moment, the charming smile and manner she’d come to expect were absent. She wrinkled her brow and glanced in the backseat. Matteo was already attempting to undo his seatbelt.
And with a stroke of perfect timing, Aurelia woke at the sudden lack of motion and started wailing at the top of her tiny lungs.
Anna unbuckled her seatbelt. She slid out of the car, avoiding Jace’s severe gaze, opened the back door, scooped the crying baby from the seat, and reached over and released Matteo from his own restraint.
She held her daughter close to her shoulder, her son by the hand and wished quite irrationally that she’d had time to do something about her hair before trying to convince Jace to take them all in.
Jace strode over, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that was dirty in several places. His boots were brown with dried mud, and there was a smudge of something across one cheek. His hair, however, was perfect, slightly longer than it had been the last time she’d seen him. The shaggy tips gave him a sexy, roguish look. She pursed her lips. She hated being at a disadvantage. She’d spent so many years exuding the perfect image it was difficult to allow herself to be anything less than perfect now.
“What on earth are you doing here?”
That was it for a greeting? No smile? No nothing? She rubbed Aurelia’s back, trying to quiet her, but she knew what was wrong and standing around wasn’t going to fix it.
“I know I should have called first…”
Jace frowned. “Called first? It’s not like you live moments away. You’ve come all the way from the island.”
Matteo had pulled his fingers away and Anna rested her hand on top of his head. Oh, the man made it sound like she was the dumbest woman in the world. Didn’t he know about Stefano? Didn’t he know what a shambles her life was? Was there really that much distance between them now? He made Vancouver Island sound like it was oceans away.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And you did say I was always welcome.”
As soon as she said the words, her eyes stung sharply and her breath caught, painful and thin in her lungs. All through the trip—packing, the flight, even the drive here—she’d been fine, but now it all caught up with her. It was hopeless. She was pathetic, running away from her problems. And knowing it, tears glimmered and slipped down her cheeks.
“Anna.” Jace’s face softened, his eyes dark with concern. “Anna, what’s happened? Don’t cry. Please.”
He gripped her upper arms, the fingers strong around her biceps. Suddenly it was all clear. Stefano was gone. Her father was furious. Alex was wrapped up in Melissa and their first pregnancy. She was alone, and she’d made so many mistakes, ending with the latest—coming to Jace.
“Mama?” Matteo stood firm beside her left thigh, and she let her fingers trail along his dark head, attempting to allay the worry she heard in his little voice. Aurelia’s crying increased.
“What’s wrong with her?”
Little Matteo stepped forward from beneath his mother’s hand, brown eyes blazing. “My sister is hungry and needs to be changed.”
A smile twitched at the corners of Jace’s mouth as he turned his attention to Matteo. He lifted his brows in a way that said he was clearly indulging the boy. “Is that right?”
Anna tried to smile, gathering herself together. Matteo was trying so hard. She hated how her son saw her sad more often than not these days. Jace was as infuriating as ever, though normally he wasn’t mean about it. The friend she knew would have been teasing or concerned. Instead he was sharp and annoyed. Maybe she’d overestimated the power of their past friendship. Jace didn’t usually do things to be polite, but maybe he’d casually thrown out the offer thinking she’d never take him up on it. She hadn’t thought things through. Again. “I don’t want to inconvenience you, Jace. Perhaps you could point me to the guesthouse and we’ll be out of the way.”
“The guesthouse isn’t equipped for guests. You’ll have to stay at the main house. With me.”
Anna was in no position to argue. Aurelia was at her limit and from the stubborn set of his chin, Matteo wasn’t far behind. Right now she had to get them settled somewhere. She hadn’t planned on taking over his home. The website Jace had set up for Two Willows had distinctly described the winery as having a main house and a guesthouse. It was on that basis she’d made the decision to come. Doubt flickered once more, but then Aurelia’s wail pierced the air again and she knew she’d have to deal with the rest later.
“Mama, I have the bag.” Matteo had gone to the car and retrieved the diaper bag, hefting it on his slim shoulder. He glared up at Jace with as much of a withering look a boy of nearly four could muster. Anna’s heart smiled. Her baby boy tried to look after her as much as she looked after him. After Stefano’s funeral, her father had told Matteo to watch over his mama. And here he was, bless his heart, trying to make life easier in the only way a four-year-old knew how. But it wasn’t his responsibility, and it grated that her father had put the responsibility of the family on a child’s shoulders—even figuratively—when it belonged squarely on her own.
But then, when had her wishes ever counted?
Anna lifted her nose at Jace so that he wouldn’t see the glimmer of tears again. She spun away, carrying Aurelia with as much dignity as she could, considering the wails that erupted from the baby’s tiny lungs. Matteo trailed slightly behind, tipped a little sideways as he lugged along the bag. “Come, Matteo. We’ll go up to the house.”
It took Jace a moment to realize what was happening. Then, as he caught sight of her swaying hips, he strode forward, his jaw tight. Who did she think she was, waltzing in here and looking at him as if everything was his fault? He reached the door before she did and wrenched it open, the movement having little to do with chivalry and more to do with the fact that it was his door. And damned if she didn’t sweep by him with her nose still in the air.
His sweet Anna. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot. That was all. She was used to having a nanny, and now was dealing with her children alone. He wasn’t totally insensitive to what she’d been through. She’d lost her husband. And Jace hadn’t even gone to the funeral. He’d heard about it from his vintner, who had heard it from a fellow vintner at a winery near Morelli’s. He’d felt like a coward ever since. He’d called Alex for the details and then sent flowers. He should have known she’d be struggling. He should have offered her a place. The proud Anna he remembered would never have shown up out of the blue. She wouldn’t have cried, either. She’d changed, and he’d been too blind to see it.
But seeing her now was a blow to the gut. The same way it had been when he’d visited her last, in the hospital when Aurelia had been born. A reminder of what could have been. A reminder that she was untouchable. Just as she was now. This was why he stayed away. Being near her reminded him of too much. He couldn’t take away the hurt of the past.
“I don’t suppose you have a nursery?” She sighed with impatience and he set his teeth to keep from retorting. Aurelia’s cries had quieted from screams to pitiful whimpers, and Jace suddenly saw the lines around Anna’s eyes.
But Anna didn’t have wrinkles. She was bright and energetic and unstoppable.
Jace wanted to help her. He’d always wanted to help her, even when she’d married Stefano. He’d tried to make the feelings go away but had never quite succeeded. And as much as it bothered him to have her near, he wanted to look after her now. Maybe she’d made mistakes, but clearly she was paying for them.
Yet the fact remained—he’d never really forgiven her for marrying Stefano in the first place. It had barely been three months after Jace had gone away with Alex when Anna and Stefano announced their engagement. Everything that had been was suddenly gone, like it hadn’t mattered at all. Like it hadn’t even existed. He’d been partly to blame, but she’d acted in a way he hadn’t thought she was capable of. Selfish. And that fact still left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I don’t have a nursery, but there is a spare room. Up the stairs and to the right. Down the hall you’ll find a room for you and your daughter as well as one for the boy next to it.” Again he saw the evidence of fatigue in her eyes. He’d seen that look of total defeat on her face before, and couldn’t be responsible for it a second time. It wasn’t in him to turn her away no matter what their past issues. There were years of friendship to take into account. “It’s yours for as long as you need, Anna.”
She looked momentarily nonplussed. “You mean you’ll let us stay?”
The way she looked at him made him feel like a worm, lowly and dirty, and like she’d expected him to throw them out after one night.
“What kind of man do you think I am? Of course you can stay.” He might not like it, but he’d never turn her out. He pressed his lips together. Did she really doubt him so very much?
He bent down to unlace his boots. “Give me a moment. I’ll show you.”
Her gaze skittered away. “That’s all right, we’ll find it. Thank you.”
Her voice was much mollified, and he was relieved that for the moment her tears had disappeared. If only he could erase his own feelings of responsibility. If he’d been a man all those years ago instead of a coward…
He scowled as the second boot came off, and he heard her speaking softly as she led Matteo up the stairs and to their accommodations. The truth was he’d do anything to help Anna. Anna had been his family for a lot of years, always there when he’d needed her. He owed her.
But a poor host he was indeed, so once the boots were off, he took the steps two at a time in pursuit.
He found the three of them in the first spare room. Anna was bent over the bed, buttoning up the front of the baby’s frilly dress. Her voice was soft and musical, a change from the Anna he remembered. On the floor by the door linking the two rooms, he saw Matteo on his knees, running a toy car across the floor.
“Did you find everything all right?”
Anna’s head spun around, her hands still spanning the baby’s ribs. Matteo stopped the driving noises he’d been making to look up. Not in many years had Jace felt so much like an outsider.
“Yes, thank you. It’s been a long day, especially for the children. They don’t understand…”
Her voice broke off and he knew there was much the children didn’t understand. That he didn’t understand himself. He and Anna needed to talk. He needed to know the real reason she was here. Because this was no ordinary visit, of that he was sure.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she continued. “We seem to have made ourselves quite at home.”
“That was the intent, wasn’t it?” He let a smile touch his lips, knowing they’d gotten off on the wrong foot. Her answering smile was tentative, and her eyes fell on her son.
He turned his attention to Matteo, who was watching him with openly hostile eyes. The boy was playing with a rudimentary wooden car, one Jace had made with his father when he’d been a boy and that now had a position of honor in one of the guest rooms. It was more for decoration than function these days, but he didn’t have the heart to take it away from Matteo. The boy had lost enough, and Jace wasn’t heartless.
“You found my car. Do you like it?”
“You can have it back. I wasn’t going to hurt it.”
He went over to Matteo. The boy was just old enough to understand what had happened with his father and far too young to be able to put it in perspective. Jace squatted down in front of Matteo and tried a smile. “I made this with my dad many years ago.”
“You still have toys?”
He gave Matteo a conspiratorial wink. Of course he did, only his toys now were of the faster, more expensive variety. “Certainly. You’re never too old for toys.”
Matteo blinked a few times. “My papa’s dead. But I like my Nonno Roberto. He doesn’t yell at me.”
Jace’s heart clubbed. It was all so matter of fact, and very telling. Lord, if the judgmental Roberto Morelli was being held up as an example of kindness, Stefano must have been a piece of work. What kind of life had Anna had with Stefano? And the children? Had he been a good father? Guilt piled upon guilt as Jace realized he should know the answers. If he’d been the kind of friend he should have, he would have known.
“There is a chest of toys in your room, Matteo. We’ll get them out of the closet. You’re free to use them all.”
Jace smiled. With the blessing to use the toys, Matteo had lost the edge of reserve he’d been clinging to since getting out of the car, a demeanor that had seemed out of place in a boy so young.
The boy took the car and went through the door to his own room. Jace saw him take the car up onto the bed. Small boys who were yelled at. His stomach clenched. He’d had a poor childhood, but his parents had never been cruel, even when life had been cruel to them. He hoped Stefano had never been cruel to Matteo or to Anna. Jace had enough to feel guilty about without bearing that burden, as well.
He stood again and turned to face Anna. Her expression was solemn, her eyes wide. There were shadows in their depths and he wondered what had put them there. It seemed her husband’s death had affected her profoundly. She was not the same vibrant woman he remembered. Children and widowhood could do that to a woman, he supposed. Had Stefano’s death broken her heart?
A large tear glimmered on the baby’s cheek as Anna held her in her arms. What he wanted to say and what he could say were two very different things. Saying what he thought now wouldn’t help. In fact, he highly doubted he had any right to say anything at all.
“Let me know if you need anything more. I’ll go downstairs and make us some dinner.”
She tried a smile, but he saw the sadness behind it and fought the urge to reach out and gather her in his arms and tell her it was okay. He’d lost the right to be her defender and protector a long time ago.
“Thank you, Jace. We’re very grateful for your kindness.”
Kindness? The last thing he’d ever been was kind. He put his hands in his pockets and excused himself. And got out while he still could.